A Young Media Person's Guide To Evaluating Pilots

I've been analyzing television programming for more than 30 years. I’ve seen many good pilots become weak series and lackluster pilots become long-running hits. 

People are always asking me what I look for when evaluating a pilot.  Here are some guidelines:

Is a comedy funny because of the characters or the plot?Is it a one-joke show or can it be maintained as a weekly series?

Some of the funniest pilots I’ve seen over the years include “Golden Girls,” “Cheers,” “Roseanne,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family.”  But I can't recall what any of them were about.  They were funny because the characters were funny and compatible, not because of anything that happened in the pilot.  The casts had strong chemistry, and people wanted to see them interact week after week.

The best and most successful comedies all have this in common. 



It's difficult to write 20 strong story lines in a season.  People tune in for the characters, not the plot.  They're called situation comedies for a reason. People want slight variations of the same situation week after week.  This is the main reason series such as “Seinfeld”and “The Big Bang Theory” can thrive in syndication cable reruns, with viewers watching the same episodes over and over again.

This actually applies to dramas as well. 

The upcoming ABC Keifer Sutherland drama “Designated Survivor,” for example, looks great.  But the events that occur in the pilot will be over by the second episode.  How the series unfolds from there, not how compelling the pilot is, will determine whether the series succeeds – which leads into my next point.

What will a drama's third or fourth episode be like?  It's relatively easy to write one stirring medical, courtroom, or police drama for experienced television writers. We need to consider the potential strengths and charisma of both the lead and supporting characters. Is the pilot a good one-time movie or will it make a good weekly series?

Stars don’t make shows; shows make stars.  The failed TV series with major stars attached are too numerous to list here.  In most cases, the show makes the star, not the other way around -- particularly for younger-skewing series -- think “Friends,” “Grey's Anatomy,” “Glee,” “The Walking Dead,” “Modern Family,”The Big Bang Theory,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “Underground,” etc. 

Some stars, such as Tom Selleck, can bring longtime fans to a show, but without a strong supporting cast, the show would not succeed.  Established stars usually bring high viewer expectations, which are often hard to live up to. 

Most series look better in a conference room than in your living room. I have typically watched pilots with co-workers in a conference room, on a DVD sent to me by the networks or on a special Web site that I can watch at my leisure.  There are no commercials and no distractions.  When the show finally airs, of course, it will be on following some other program, opposite some other programs.

Scheduling and the competitive landscape are often just as important to a show's success as the quality of the show itself.

Most big hits are accidental.  My track record of predicting new series hits and misses is pretty good.  At least nine out of 10 shows I think will flop do. (It's easier to pick a miss than a hit).  I'm equally good at predicting which new shows might win their time periods.  But the big-time hits almost always come out of nowhere.

Anyone who says they predicted “Friends,” “Grey's Anatomy,” “American Idol,” “Scandal,” “The Blacklist” or “Empire” would be instant hits is simply lying.  You just never know what's going to click with a broad spectrum of viewers.  The next “Walking Dead” is right around the corner, but we won't know it until after it debuts.

An upcoming issue of “The Sternberg Report” will provide an in-depth analysis of the new fall season pilots: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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